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The Q&A: Kelly Williams

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Kelly Williams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kelly Williams is the project coordinator for Preventing Dropout Among At-Risk Youth: A Study of Project GOAL with English Learners.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Kelly Williams is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin who is studying learning and behavioral disabilities. She is a project coordinator for a high school reading intervention and dropout prevention project, run by the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk.  

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about your research project on reading intervention and dropout preventions.

Kelly Williams: We have been awarded a four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to examine the efficacy of a reading intervention and dropout prevention program. Sharon Vaughn is the principal investigator and I am the project coordinator.

We’ve targeted high school students in three high schools in Houston who are struggling readers and English language learners. We looked for students who failed their eighth grade state reading test or barely passed and we also identify English language learners or who received ELL services within the past five years. They had to meet both of these criteria.

We follow them through two years of high school and two years after high school. In the study, we have four different groups, and we randomly assign students to receive different types and combinations of interventions, and one group is a control.

Trib+Edu: Tell me more about the kinds of intervention you are evaluating.

Williams: In the first group, students in ninth and 10th grade take a reading class, in addition to the English literature class they would normally get. It replaces an elective. We provide them a pretty comprehensive intervention that targets their reading, their academic language and vocabulary and engagement in school.

We do word study, which involves teaching students common prefixes and meanings and how to analyze and break apart words. We also focus on comprehension strategies. We provide them opportunities to use academic language. Research has shown most ELL students have conversational proficiency in English but using words they may see in their classes – words like determine or utilize or investigate – are more difficult for them to use.

We also connect this to their curriculum. We use topics the students see in their science and social studies classes. If they’re doing a unit in cells in biology, we’re giving them a relevant text that applies those strategies. We’re making those real-world connections with them.

Trib+Edu: What’s another intervention you’re testing?

Williams: Our second intervention is based off a model called “check and connect.” It’s a mentoring intervention. Students who are assigned to this intervention receive access to an adult mentor. This person is like a guidance counselor but more specialized, with a smaller caseload. They are usually responsible for less than 70 students.

They provide different types of support depending on the students’ needs. They monitor attendance, academic grades, report cards, behavior and discipline referrals. While they’re monitoring this, if they notice that students are starting to fall below a certain level, they start intervening. They try to develop excellent home-school relations, so they’re calling and visiting homes.

You want to get students connected with at least one interested adult, who cares about them and can build a relationship with them, that’s the connecting part of “check and connect.” The check part of “check and connect” is checking their grades, their attendance, their behavior.

The mentors use a data collection system that helps them identify how often they need to meet students. They can be classified as intensive, moderate or low need. Regardless, even the students who don’t need intensive support, are still connecting with the advisor at least a few times a week. 

Trib+Edu: What about the other two groups?

Williams: In the third group, students get both – the reading intervention and the check and connect prevention program. They’re in a reading class and they have that mentor.

The fourth we call “business as usual” rather than a control group because a control group would imply they’re getting nothing, which in most schools is not the case. They usually are getting some kind of counselor or a meeting with the truancy officer but they are not getting the two programs.

Trib+Edu: Don’t schools offer these services anyway?

Williams: Sometimes if they’re identified as ELL, they might have an ELL class. Some are getting that but some are not. It depends. There are different levels of proficiency for ELL and it also depends on what the school is able to provide. They usually provide some kind of services but students who exited from the program, who previously received ELL services, most likely are not getting that kind of support.

It depends on the district. Some allocate resources to a ninth grade reading class. But sometimes it’s just an extra day to work on STAAR test prep or to work on essay writing or other skills that are important but maybe aren’t necessarily working on those basic skills or higher order comprehensions.

Trib+Edu: How far into your research are you?

Williams: We are in our second year. We have two cohorts of students. One cohort started last year in ninth grade. They are currently in 10th grade. We have another cohort currently in ninth grade right now.

Trib+Edu: Why are these interventions important?

Williams: We know reading achievement is the biggest predictor of dropout. If students are unable to read, they are struggling academically. It results in disengagement and you can even start to predict disengagement from the fifth grade. If we are able to develop interventions that can support these students and keep them in school, we know they’re going to have better postsecondary outcomes.

I like to think of it as a public health problem. We have people who then go out into society and they can’t hold a job and they can’t successfully contribute to society. It’s about confidence. Kids who struggle, they tend to avoid academics and because they avoid it, they don’t get any practice and because they don’t practice, then they don’t get any better and it becomes a cycle.

Trib+Edu: What are the biggest challenges with implementing these interventions?

Williams: On the administrative side, it’s hard, especially at the secondary level. We find scheduling is a very big issue. Most students are required to have a certain numbers of credits in certain areas. Sometimes it doesn’t leave room for a reading class.

It can also be a little more difficult to find reading teachers at the secondary level than it is at the elementary level.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about the outcomes your measure.

Williams: We measure a variety of outcomes. We look at reading outcomes. They have standardized measures of reading achievement that we administer for the students. We will look at their STAAR test scores in English and science. We’ll look at their course grades, the number of credits they earned, absences, behavior referrals.

On the mentoring side, we have a self-report measure, where students report their engagement in school. The end goal is to look two years out and see how many students are graduating and we compare that between those who received intervention and those who did not. 

Collecting this kind of data is difficult because of the high mobility of students across schools. We sometimes don’t know if they actually dropped out or are just enrolled somewhere else. It can be tricky to measure dropout. We currently have over 600 participants, across three schools in Houston.

Our mentors and teachers check in with the students; if we have a student move, we try to hunt them down and figure out what happened or if they transferred. But sometimes they get very muddled, even in the schools’ own data collection. They might move five times before they eventually drop out or finish school.

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